Getting enthused about Aspen

June 28, 2011
Aspen Ideas Festival, I think I like it a lot.

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On the strength of one opening afternoon at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I think I like it a lot. And that’s a surprise to me: I was expecting that Alpine gabfests would tend to have more similarities than differences. But this is a world away from Davos, and not just in terms of longitude or season. At Davos, everybody is self-importantly “committed to improving the state of the world”; in Aspen, the stakes are much lower, and the emphasis is on what you’re saying rather than who you are.

The economics of conferences dictate, of course, that there be a smattering of bold-faced names who will do their bit in attracting the paying public and large corporate sponsors. But it’s surprisingly easy to avoid the politicians and the blowhards, and to find sessions on subjects about which you know very little and therefore can learn a lot.

There’s something about Aspen in general, and the layout of the Aspen Institute in particular, which engenders a friendly informality. The setting, of course, is stunning — and it’s also wide open, with lots of space to enjoy the beautiful grounds or wander off to nowhere in particular. Davos doesn’t lend itself to long, discursive conversations: it’s too cramped, too intense, too busy, too urgent. Aspen is relaxed, and informal, and — wonderfully — open to the (well-heeled) public. Security here is almost invisible; there are no heads of state, no metal detectors, and not even much sign of corporate meetings and dealmaking.

The opening session was a rapid-fire salvo of quick three-minute Big Ideas, ranging from the striking to the silly. I had favorites, of course. Salman Khan, of the Khan Academy, talked about how it might be possible to set up a credentialing system so that if you’ve become as knowledgeable and adept as a Harvard graduate, Harvard or some institution like it could certify you as such — even if you didn’t go to an expensive formal college. It’s one of the few ideas which could really make a dent in academic cost inflation, and maybe even drive it down.

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates had a fantastic little talk about the increasing respectability of professional athletes, to the point at which Americans tend to side with them, now, rather than sports team owners, when there’s a dispute. And that’s partly because, he said, “we have a less racist country”. In the 1980s, he said, there was a feeling that African-American athletes “didn’t deserve the salaries that they were getting”, while now we have “a situation where players command much more respect”, with much less in the way of racial undertones, even as team owners get less respect than they used to. It’s one of the very few areas of America where power has shifted away from capital and towards labor over the past couple of decades.

And David Leonhardt recapitulated his great column about the sad fate awaiting mothers in the workforce. Companies have to realize, he said, that there’s an enormous pool of untapped and underutilized talent out there — and any economy or sector which manages to get the most out of mothers is going to have huge potential.

Then, after dinner, I got the opportunity to see a Larry Lessig slideshow in the flesh — something I can highly recommend. In this case, it was an expanded and signficantly tweaked version of this talk, on the way that US institutions in general, and Congress in particular, have become corrupted by corporate money.

The talk is quite a tour de force at this point, and was followed by a fascinating Q&A period in which smart questions were asked and Lessig actually answered them. Paul Romer got the final question, asking whether some of the problem could be fixed by moving powers away from the legislature and into the executive. That question elicited a quite astonishing five-minute response, which I’ll try to transcribe here with only minor elisions. Remember, this is entirely extemporaneous:

We’ve seen that. We have pretty powerfully shifted power to the executive. And what that does is just relocate the place in which the influence is going to have its effect. Now you could have an executive who very strictly regulated the legislature. We might be left with that as a second best solution.

But I think that there’s something weak about democracy that depends upon these extremely powerful executives. And if you look at the American constitution today, relative to the framers’ Constitution, the framers envisioned Congress at the core. That was the jewel of their democracy. And these two necessary evils on each side. An executive, like the president, who they were fearful would become a king; they tried to limit his power so that he couldn’t. And the courts, who were hated at the time, because courts were just tools of the King. So courts and the executive were two sideshows, and Congress was a jewel.

Of course what we’ve done over the past 200 years is everything we can to inflate the power of the courts. People love the courts. Even after Bush v Gore, people still have enormous respect for the Supreme Court. Everybody wants them to fix what the democratic process doesn’t. And we’ve expanded dramatically the power of the president. So the power of the presidency today looks more like King George, and the Queen today looks much like George Washington. We’ve somehow reversed their roles because we’ve pushed to solve this problem of a failed democracy.

When I get this kind of pushback, it feels like a kind of splash of cold water, of the form “none of the changes you’re talking about are ever going to happen, so what’s the second best?” And the reality is you might be right. It might be impossible. And I got that question directly once, in Dartmouth. And I had this thought when she said this. If a doctor came to me and said your son has terminal brain cancer, there’s nothing you can do — would I do nothing? Just look at the doctor and say OK?

When you think about what it is to love, the willingness to act compassionately for something, that kind of emotional need, love for country: there are people who go risk their lives for that kind of love.

All of us have to have this kind of irrational love for country. Which says yes, maybe it’s impossible. But we’re going to act even if it’s impossible. And nothing I’m asking anybody to do is anything like the soldiers who go for love of country and fight our wars. Nobody’s going to die from this fight. It doesn’t take two years away from your family. All it takes is commitment, as citizens, not to let politicians continue to destroy the republic.

There’s no reason not to start that fight. So I flew myself for 24 hours here to Aspen because if that fight starts anywhere, it starts in places like this. With people like you.

Now you can agree or disagree with Lessig’s rhetoric — but his arguments surrounding the jurisprudence of corruption are sophisticated and interesting, and also laced through with real passion and vision. And he’s absolutely right that Aspen is one of the places where such ideas will take root, if they are to have a real effect. What’s more, Aspen is a place where it isn’t embarrassing to have such ideas and ideals.

This isn’t a place where grandees chair a “policy and initiatives coordination board” which will “analyse, assess and coordinate the prioritization, development and impact of multistakeholder initiatives within the global system” in order to “support the global agenda”. Instead, it’s a place where individuals can discuss ideas with passion and sophistication, and learn from literally hundreds of other people doing the exact same thing. Which is a pretty fecund place to be, if it’s done right.

Obviously, there’s a lot more Ideas Festival to come — it’s barely started — and for all I know it could yet get hijacked by politicians and stale debates. But on the evidence of the short first day, I’m optimistic about what might transpire here. Especially since my hotel has a small fleet of Trek Districts which I can use to get to the campus and back. Or maybe it’s just the altitude going to my head, and I’ll be over it in a couple of days.


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